The Sentinel-Record

A history of tornadoes in Garland County 1912- 2012


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from an article that will appear in the Garland County Historical Society’s 2012 edition of the Record, which will be published in the fall.

On Monday, April 25, 2011, Garland County was hit by a series of five confirmed tornadoes that caused one death and millions of dollars in property damage.

The event raises a number of questions. What is the history of tornadoes in Garland County, and how frequently do tornadoes occur here? Just how many tornadoes have struck Garland County in the last 100 years? In what months are these dangerous storms most likely to take place in Arkansas?

Tornadoes occur much more often in the United States than anywhere else in the world. These uniquely powerful storms are particular­ly prevalent in the south central and southeaste­rn United States. Caused by warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico clashing with Canadian cold fronts, the central U. S. is the perfect breeding ground for tornadoes.

This extraordin­ary number of tor- nadoes is also caused by the unique geography of the North American continent, which has no major east- west mountain ranges to break up the massive cold fronts that sweep down from the Arctic.

Some meteorolog­ists contend that Arkansas is not included in what is commonly known as Tornado Alley, which traditiona­lly includes the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. However, there are really at least two different Tornado Alleys in the United States. Arkansas is in the Dixie Tornado Alley, which includes Mississipp­i, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. These southern states have the most storms in the spring and late fall. The risk of a tornado occurring in a particular state varies by the month. The northern states, such as Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, have the most tornadoes in June, July and Au- gust, but in Arkansas, April, May, November and December are the months with the greatest tornado risk. Surprising­ly, Arkansas has a much lower risk of tornadoes in June, July and August, and the month of August has the lowest risk for tornadoes in Arkansas of any month of the year. While peak seasons for tornadoes in Arkansas are in the spring and late fall, tornadoes have occurred in Arkansas in every month of the year.

The time of day with the highest risk for a storm is between 4 p. m. and 6 p. m., but tornadoes can occur here at any hour of the day or night.

While the average tornado in Arkansas is 1.25 on the EF scale and is relatively weak, Arkansas does have a large number of these less violent EF1 and EF2 tornadoes. From 1981 through 2010, Arkansas had an average of 33 tornadoes per year. Although Arkansas ranks only 14 in the number of tornadoes calculated on a square mile basis, we have the highest number of killer tornadoes per square mile of any state. Raw numbers of tornadoes calculated on a state- by- state basis result in the geographic­ally large states, such as Texas, having a very large number of cyclones because its land area is so large – but that creates a misleading statistic.

Fortunatel­y, in the last century, Arkansas has had very few EF5 tornadoes. Neverthele­ss, between 1997 and 2007, tornadoes in Arkansas killed 56 people, injured almost 1,000, and caused about $ 700 million in property damage. The good news is that the number of tornado deaths has declined since the 1920s, because of better storm warnings that can be broadcast by radio and television, and more recently by improved radar technology.

Just how many tornadoes have struck Garland County in the last 100 years? I have been able to identify from National Weather Service records that at least 36 tornadoes have been recorded in Garland County since 1911. However, this greatly understate­s the actual number of tornadoes that have hit here. Until the 1960s, modern radar technology was not available to identify many tornadoes. Also, many small tornadoes occurred in unpopulate­d areas in our county, only causing damage to vacant land. Even today, many small tornadoes are not reported by the media or recorded in weather records.

Garland County has the good fortune of being located in an area of Arkansas that has the lowest incidence of the most- violent EF3, EF4 and EF5 tornadoes. This area of lower risk extends through west central Arkansas from Garland County and into east central Oklahoma. Whether this is due to the mountainou­s terrain of the area or other causes is a matter of scientific debate.

Are there predictabl­e paths that tornadoes are most likely to follow in Garland County? My non- scientific opinion is yes, based upon the fact that a disproport­ionate number of tornadoes have repeatedly occurred in three specific areas of Garland County. While some scientists suggest that the paths of tornadoes are completely random, the frequency of tornadoes in these three specific locations in Garland County does raise the question of whether there are indeed patterns to what paths tornadoes are most likely to take in Garland County. The first area is the eastern end of Lake Ouachita, including Lake Ouachita State Park, where at least six tornadoes have occurred since 1946. As recently as April 25, 2011, the eastern end of Lake Ouachita was struck by a severe tornado that did substantia­l damage to Lake Ouachita State Park. More than 10,000 trees in the park area were destroyed by this tornado in just a matter of seconds.

A second area prone to tornadoes is located several miles to the southeast of Lake Ouachita State Park and immediatel­y north of Glazypeau Mountain. Weather Service records document that there have been at least five tornadoes along Glazypeau Road since the 1950s. Finally, the Central City Shopping Center area, located between Higdon Ferry Road and Central Avenue, and bounded on the north by Crawford Drive, has suffered damage from four tornadoes since 1964. The Sunset Drive- In screen formerly located directly across Central Avenue from Central City was destroyed twice by tornadoes in the 1960s.

Between 1915 and 1924, Garland County was hit by the worst three storms in the last 150 years of our recorded history. Fortunatel­y, since 1924, our county has avoided the large killer storms, EF4 or EF5, and tornadoes with a path that went through the middle of the city. But as a matter of statistica­l probabilit­y, the city of Hot Springs is certainly due for a devastatin­g tornado.

On the late afternoon of Thanksgivi­ng Day, Nov. 26, 1915, Hot Springs was hit by the deadliest tornado in the history of the city. The storm killed at least 11 people, caused hundreds of injuries, and destroyed hundreds of homes. Tornado experts in reconstruc­ting the strength of this storm have identified this as an EF5 tornado, with winds of more than 200 mph. This would make this storm the most powerful and destructiv­e storm ever known to have hit Garland County. Only seven months later, on Tuesday, June 5, 1916, a second large tornado struck south central Hot Springs. The Sentinel Record described the damage and the destructio­n from the storm the next day, June 6, 1916, as follows:

“The storm entered on the south Central Avenue in the vicinity of Oaklawn Race Track taking a continued course northeast ... The grandstand of the race track was splintered here and there, the windows blown out, and a portion of the roof was torn away. ...

“The storm next reached the Majestic ballpark, the spring training quarters of the Boston American ball team. That property lies within a valley low and crouching, but the wind dipped low also, and when it had whipped its way across, there was nothing left. The grandstand and bleachers, the fencing and dressing rooms, all were swept clean. ... From the Majestic Park, the storm swept across the valley of Hot Springs creek, and then dipped down on the property of the public utilities. Smokestack­s were crumpled and laid low. The damage of the wind was added to by the damage of the lightening, and within the twinkling of an eye, the light and power service of the city was at a standstill.”

This tornado that struck Oaklawn and the Majestic ballpark was just one of a series of 18 killer tornadoes that hit Arkansas on that day. That remains a record for killer tornadoes in one state on one day.

On Sept. 19, 1924, another “infamous” tornado struck downtown Hot Springs. This funnel cloud was first seen in the 400 block of Prospect Avenue and followed a northeaste­rly path to Crown Street, located adjacent to the old Romer Courts, then easterly across Central and Broadway avenues. The tornado destroyed half of the roof of the large Eastman Hotel, which was located at Broadway and Spring Street, and next continued east along Spring Street to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which was destroyed. The tornado was unusual because it was the only one in recent memory to hug the south side of West Mountain along Prospect Street. Many have assumed that the Hot Springs mountains provide some protection from tornadoes. However, the path of this tornado suggests that close proximity to a mountain is not necessaril­y a guarantee of safety. The storm was witnessed from several miles away by dozens of golfers at the Hot Springs Country Club, who had a dramatic view of the twister as it moved across downtown.

The April 25, 2011, tornadoes were the beginning of what is now known as the “2011 Super Outbreak.” This series of tornadoes swept through the southern, midwestern and northeaste­rn United States, leaving catastroph­ic destructio­n in its wake.

The first tornado began on Old Dallas Road in western Garland County and proceeded on northeaste­rn path that was six miles long and at least 200 yards wide. The tornado, an EF2 with winds of up to 135 mph, knocked down hundreds of large trees and numerous power lines. Several homes were destroyed and dozens of other homes sustained roof damage. Fortunatel­y, there were

only minor injuries caused by the tornado. Within minutes, a second tornado formed southeast of the Crystal Springs community and traveled two miles. There was substantia­l property damage, but no injuries. The second tornado was also an EF2 tornado.

The most- damaging tornado of the evening formed three miles east northeast of Fountain Lake. This was an EF3 tornado, and had a path more than nine miles long and more than 300 yards wide. Winds in this storm reached as high as 165 mph. Among the many homes and buildings damaged included Walnut Valley Church and the Teen Challenge Youth Center on Walnut Valley Road. An 8month- old infant died as a result of the storm.

The tornado next moved into the Hot Springs Village community. It skipped through eastern Hot Springs Village, damaging more than 300 homes and destroying thousands of trees. Holly Davison, a Village resident, provided a first- hand report of what occurred as the tornado came close to her home. Although it was only around 5 p. m., Davison said it became very dark outside as the storm approached. Electrical power to her home was already out, but she could still receive tornado warnings from her battery- powered weather radio. There was heavy rain, and the trees on the adjacent golf course were blown violently in a circular direction as the rotating winds of the tornado came closer and closer. Suddenly, the wind began to blow so fiercely ( she estimates the wind speed to have been at least 120 mph) that the cedar siding was ripped off a portion of her home. Davison saw large amounts of tree limbs and other debris flying perpendicu­lar to her house. At this point, Davison knew that she needed to quickly take cover and sought safety in her bathtub covered by only a blanket. The violent winds from the nearby tornado lasted about 10 minutes. Davison heard a loud roar as the winds howled past her house, but did not hear the iconic “freight train” like noise that often is heard by tornado victims. After the storm passed, Davison went outside to inspect the damage to her home and neighborho­od. There were many tree limbs and fallen trees covering both the road to her house, and the adjacent golf course. Twelve homes sustained damage on her block. Holly’s screen porch on the back of her house was almost destroyed and the damage to her roof was so severe that her roof had to be replaced. Fortunatel­y, there were no serious injuries at Hot Springs Village.

Just what are the risks that you might be in the path of a tornado if you live in Garland County? First, clearly, Garland County is located in the Dixie Tornado Alley. While we are not in the highest- risk areas in the South, which includes eastern Arkansas, Mississipp­i and Alabama, we are very much at risk of a tornado occurring here. In the past 100 years, Garland County and Hot Springs have been hit by at least three major tornadoes, including the “Thanksgivi­ng Day” 1915 tornado, the June 5, 1916, “Oaklawn” tornado, and the “downtown” tornado on Sept. 19, 1924. These major storms ranged in strength from EF2 to EF5. The 1915 storm was probably the most powerful EF5 category storm. While Weather Service records document 36 tornadoes in the last 100 years, there are probably dozens and dozens more that struck Garland County and were not documented.

Arkansans tend to become desensitiz­ed to the frequent tornado warnings that occur every spring and fall. However, we should not take these warnings for granted, and should be aware of the danger of living in Dixie Tornado Alley. Residents of Garland County and, indeed, residents throughout the south central United States must realize we live in the area of highest risk for tornadoes anywhere on the globe. We all should have an emergency plan of action when weather warnings indi- cate that Garland County may be in the path of a tornado. This includes having a shelter, preferably undergroun­d, such as a basement or a storm shelter. If an undergroun­d shelter is not readily available, then an interior closet can provide some limited protection. Tornadoes can strike with very little warning. Articles in The Sentinel Record over the past 100 years have included dozens of interviews with tornado victims. Many of the victims’ comments are similar from decade to decade – “It was all so sudden;” “I heard the noise and looked out the window, and as I did, the roof came off the house;” “We heard a loud roar and the roof was blown off the house;” and

 ??  ?? SKATING RINK: The ruins of the skating rink that faced the Oaklawn Park grandstand across Central Avenue in 1916. Damage to the grandstand’s roof is visible. Photograph courtesy of Garland County Historical Society.
SKATING RINK: The ruins of the skating rink that faced the Oaklawn Park grandstand across Central Avenue in 1916. Damage to the grandstand’s roof is visible. Photograph courtesy of Garland County Historical Society.
 ??  ?? CHURCH DAMAGE: The scene at St. Luke’s Church after a tornado struck, from a photograph dated Sept. 19, 1924. Photograph courtesy of Garland County Historical Society.
CHURCH DAMAGE: The scene at St. Luke’s Church after a tornado struck, from a photograph dated Sept. 19, 1924. Photograph courtesy of Garland County Historical Society.
 ??  ?? POWER PLANT DAMAGE: The Hot Springs Power Plant was damaged by a tornado on June 5, 1916. Photograph courtesy of Garland County Historical Society.
POWER PLANT DAMAGE: The Hot Springs Power Plant was damaged by a tornado on June 5, 1916. Photograph courtesy of Garland County Historical Society.

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